Thursday 8 April 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 6

[Shanks is back with a vengeance in the next exciting episode ...]

After his couple of days of mischief, Terrence went to bed feeling contented. He stretched out in the lumpy bed and stared up at the sagging, discoloured ceiling without really seeing it. He wriggled his toes free of the bed clothes and began to tap them on the wooden bed-end in a military sort of way. Geoffrey Boycat had been almost pleased with the boy's report, and had shown it by not sitting on his lap, and not sharpening his claws on him.

He looked over at his sleeping sister and smiled. It was not a "good-night-sleep-tight-hope-the-mozzies-don't-bite" sort of smile. It was more primitive. The sort that younger children smile just after they've poked their tongues out and said "nyaa nyaa nyaa nyaa nyaa." Terrence secretly wished he was still young enough to do that, but he knew it might look a bit silly. Right now nothing was worse than looking foolish, or at least looking foolish in public. He was aware that talking to a cat, and even more taking orders from a cat, would not have looked too good. But he was content that no-one knew about it. To Terrence that was as good as it not being foolish at all.

But Peg's talking to animals was another story altogether. She'd made the mistake of doing it so someone else knew. Worse still she'd tried to be a smarty pants and pretend it had never happened. And by being smart she meant to make him look dumb like she always did, sticking her nose in books all the time; giggling when he got his words wrong; giving his mum hints about trouble he'd got into at school; and just generally making him feel dumb. These were things Terrence had brooded on for a long time. Today's effort had been a satisfying start to his pay-back plans.

All of this left Terrence wide awake, his mind a slurry of vengeful and happy thoughts. In a drawer next to his bed were some old books his Pa had left for the grandchildren. Though he was not a great reader, he pulled out a couple of large and musty volumes and started looking at them. They might help him sleep. Two cowboy books, and a laughably old-fashioned space adventure were discarded before he finally settled on one called `The Bumper Book for Boys'. It had a picture of a boy about his own age on the cover, cradling a football in his arms and running away from a cluster of other boys. His brow was furrowed and mouth turned down. Perhaps he was supposed to look determined, but to Terrence he just looked sad. Somehow that odd combination of feelings drew Terrence in.

He turned over the thick, stained pages, looking first at the drawings. He chose a story mid-way through the book. It had quite a few drawings, and the intriguing title `The Dormitory 'Tecs'. Above all it was only a few pages long. Terrence wrinkled his nose at the musty smell, but settled back and read: "Huge was a bully, likewise a glutton. Queer, isn't it, how the two things go together; anyway, they did so in old Huge." By the second line Terrence found he was reading in a different accent. It was a very proper English accent such as he'd heard on wildlife documentaries.

But instead of telling him about the mating habits of badgers, this story was full of `chaps', and `chums' who saved up their `prog' from `exeat days'. And how one chap nicknamed Holmes did a bit of `super-'tecking' in the `dorms'. It was a world Terrence could barely find any connection with, but he read on, anxious for some reason to know what would happen to `old Huge'.

It was more than a disappointment to get to the end and find that Matron and Holmes had caught Huge out for stealing `prog'. "Huge got a swishing, and deserved it; next term he was moved to pastures new." Terrence threw the book to the floor. More smarty pantses and pushy females getting the better of people. Irritably he turned on his side and flicked the lamp off.

As the boy lay in his bed, he was watched from the top of the cupboard by a very interested cluster of eyes. The eyes had watched him staring and smiling at the girl asleep in the other bed; had seen him throw his shorts and shirt at the foot of his bed; had observed him pull on his pyjamas and get into bed. The spider had also noticed the wriggling toes that protruded from the end of the bed, tapping a happy tune. Shanks had lifted a couple of his legs involuntarily, as though to do a march of his own. But he stilled them and smiled. A little patience. When the boy finished reading, the light would be turned off, and his breathing would soon match the girl's. Then it might be time to do a little light-footed marching.

* * *

At the end of a long dark tunnel stood a severe bespectacled woman holding a long stick. She tapped one foot impatiently as she waited for the boy to come and get his punishment. The boy tried to look away, hiding a plastic bag full of something that wasn't his. "Come on Boy. Give it here to me!" He looked up, and saw that the woman was now a huge cat, ginger coat flecked with grey, and a pair of rimless glasses perched on her nose. She/it still held a long cane, but now it curved and tapered at the end like a giant claw.

He reached into the bag and took out one item, as if it might appease her. It was a chocolate-coated fish head. The woman/cat began howling angrily. He dropped the bag, turned and tried to run, but suddenly the tunnel filled with water, and he was washed towards the cat. In the dream the boy had forgotten how to swim. The water slapped coldly into his face. He took one, two huge unwanted draughts, before going under completely. Wildly his arms thrashed about for something to pull him up. Almost at the height of his panic he felt something long and spindly and inflexible grip him. He was hauled out of the water by an enormous spider. Though he had no air for it, he screamed violently as the spider softly began to say "You shouldn't have done it. You shouldn't have done it."

Terrence was shaking uncontrollably, his heart beating to bursting point, as he woke out of the nightmare. He frantically looked around the half-familiar room, trying to remember where he was. It took one awful minute for him to convince himself that everything was alright. He was at his Nan and Pa's shack, he'd had a bad dream, but there was nothing to worry about. There was nothing to worry about.

Just as his heart beat was slowing, he heard softly but distinctly in his left ear "you shouldn't have done it to poor old Shanks". Terrence threw his bedclothes off and leapt up, thrashing his arms about his head as if swishing at deadly wasps. He reached for his bedside lamp, but knocked it to the floor, breaking the globe with a thin audible crack. He swung around towards the main light, fumbling for fully thirty seconds before finally turning it on.

In the full light he desperately reached for his slippers, shaking them carefully before putting them on. Then he looked right around the room, all the time breathing quick and shallow. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he did it thoroughly. And he found nothing. He even checked under Peg's pillow. She stayed asleep the whole time, a peaceful blankness on her face.

Terrence finally sat back on his bed. It was time to think a bit more calmly. He'd had a rough couple of days after all. He'd met and fallen in with a very smart cat, and a very ... well, a dog as well. And he'd fought a cunning battle with a nasty spider, having to overcome his fear of creepy things. Of course it wouldn't be unusual to dream about these things, given the circumstances. That's all it was. The darkness plus his fears had made the dream seem more real than most. If he just relaxed for a while, he'd soon be able to sleep again.

Still, Terrence left his light on for another twenty minutes before deciding he'd be okay again. He then gave his bedclothes another thorough check, looked in all the drawers, and even under the bed. When he was sure everything was clear, he crept over and turned off the light. He then jumped back into bed almost without touching the floor and pulled the sheet up around his ears with a shiver. The steady breathing of Peg became a surprising comfort to him, and he decided he was glad she was there. But he was still occasionally shivering when at last he floated off to sleep again.

From the dark peace of this dream-free sleep, Terrence fell suddenly into the waking world of voices. Again, as small and clear as a pimple he heard "shouldn't have done it. He'll haunt you. Shanks'll haunt you." It was all he could do not to scream. He repeated his mad tarantella, then rushed straight for the door, this time without his slippers. He wasn't staying in that room for any money.

So Terrence spent the rest of a very long night huddled up in a wicker chair in the living room. He kept warm under his grandfather's woollen duffle coat, but slept only fitfully. He was in that position when his Pa came out to fill the kettle at 6.30.

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